Big cats

Big cats

The term big cat is used to distinguish the larger cat species from the smaller ones. There is no exact biological definition of how large a cat has to be to be considered a big cat. Some people only regard cats capable of roaring as big cats, i.e. the four species of the genus Panthera: lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard. These cats are also known as great cats or simply roaring cats.

The Panthera-defintition is considered too limited by many who feel that several non-roaring cats are equally big. Examples of such cats are the cougar, the cheetah, the snow leopard and the clouded leopard. The cougar is actually the fourth largest cat in the world and grows bigger than the leopard.

All cats – big and small, wild and tame – belong to the family Felidae. This family includes our domestic cat as well as all other wild cats, including of course the big cats. The living species are divided into two subfamilies: Pantherinae and Felinae.

The subfamily Pantherinae is where you find the abovementioned genus Panthera, as well as two other genera: Neofelis and Uncia. As you can see below, both Neofelis and Uncia are made up by different leopard species only.

  • Genus Panthera
    • Lion (Panthera leo)
    • Jaguar (Panthera onca)
    • Leopard (Panthera pardus)
    • Tiger (Panthera tigris)
  • Genus Neofelis
    • Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)
    • Bornean Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi)
  • Genus Uncia
    • Snow Leopard (Unica uncia)

The subfamily Felinae contains all other cat species, including quite big cats like the cougar, cheetah, as well as mid-sized and small ones like servals, lynxes, caracal, and ocelots. As mentioned above, even mid-sized cats are sometimes referred to as big cats, especially in contrast to domestic cats.

In prehistoric times, members of a third subfamily, Machairodontinae, roamed the earth. This was the so called sabertoothed cats that lived alongside the other two subfamilies until the last Machairodontinae cats died out roughly 10,000 years ago in the Americas.  

How do big cats roar?

When air passes through the larynx on the way to the lungs of a big cat, the cartilage walls of the larynx vibrates, thus producing the characteristic roaring sound of a big cat. All four roaring cat species have an elongated and specially adapted larynx and hyoid apparatus. The lion has the most powerful roar, since it is equipped with the longest larynx. 

How big is a big cat?

Tiger (Panthera tigris)
There are many subspecies of tiger and they vary considerably when it comes to size and weight. The largest tiger is the male Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) with a length of 190–230 cm from head to tail, with a long 60-110 cm tail in addition to that. A male Siberian tiger can weigh over 300 kg and the heaviest wild Siberian tiger on record weighed 384 kg, although the record is disputed. The smallest non-extinct subspecies of tiger is the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) where the males average 204 cm in length from head to tail and weigh no more than 100-140 kg.

Lion (Panthera leo)
The lion is the second largest big cat with some males exceeding 250 kg in weight. The heaviest known wild lion was man-eating lion shot in eastern Transvaal that weighed 313 kg. The head to tail length of a male tiger is 170-250 cm, while the tail is 90-105 cm.

Jaguar (Panthera onca)
Jaguars normally weigh around 60-95 kg, but males weighing up to 159 kg have been recorded. The length varies from roughly 160 to180 cm from head to tail, and the tail can then add a further 75 cm. The exact size varies considerably across regions and habitats. Northern living jaguars tend to be smaller than their southern dwelling counterparts, and it is not uncommon for Mexican jaguars to weigh no more than 30-50 kg.   

Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The leopard is the smallest member of the genus Panthera with a head and body length of roughly 90-190 cm and a tail that is somewhere around 60-110 cm long. Male leopards weigh about 35-90 kg. In areas isolated from other larger predators you tend to find bigger leopards than in regions where they have to compete with other big cats like tigers and lions.

More info on big and small wild cats:

Bengal Tigers
White Bengal Tigers
Royal Bengal Tigers
Bengal Tigers Facts
Jaguar Animal - Jaguar Cats
Black Jaguar (Animal)
Jaguar Animal Facts
Ocelot - Ocelot cat
Ocelot facts & Information
Siberian Tiger
White Siberian Tiger
Siberian Tiger Habitat
Siberian Tiger Fact
Siberian Tiger Information
Snow Leopard
Snow Leopard Habitat
Snow Leopard Fact
Endangered Snow Leopard
White Tigers
White Bengal Tigers
White Siberian Tigers
Baby White Tigers


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